Challenging America: Europe Seeks Space Cooperation With China

By Christian Schwägerl

Europe's space industry, cash-strapped as a result of the debt crisis, wants to step up cooperation with China, which has an ambitious program and is building a moon-landing vehicle and capsules for manned missions. Such an alliance would likely cause tensions with the US.

An unmanned Chinese space rocket launching from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province last November. Zoom
DPA

An unmanned Chinese space rocket launching from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province last November.

Thomas Reiter is a man who isn't easily impressed. He is a former test pilot with the German Air Force, and he also flew into space twice for Germany. Since last April, the 53-year-old has been one of the directors of the European Space Agency (ESA). When it comes to the technology that transports people into space, Reiter has seen just about everything -- so he was all the more astonished by what he saw during a trip to China in late 2011.

In Beijing, government representatives took him through factory buildings where satellites and rocket engines are being built. He could see how the Chinese are building a moon-landing vehicle and capsules for manned space missions. At the end of his trip, Reiter was able to observe a rocket carrying the "Shenzhou-8" lifting off from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi Desert, headed for China's Tiangong 1 space station. "It was a perfect lift-off," Reiter says enthusiastically.

There is hardly any other area in which China is as active today as in space technology. In late December, the government in Beijing unveiled a five-year plan that ranges from the increased exploration of the earth via satellite to the preparation of a manned mission to the moon.

China's foray into space presents a challenge to the West. The United States is determined not to allow anyone to usurp its dominant position in space. The Europeans and the German government, however, see the Chinese as less of a rival than a potential partner.

Merkel Trip to China

Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to China this week. German-Chinese cooperation in the field of space travel could be worthwhile for both nations. The rocket lift-off that ESA Director Reiter was allowed to witness brought the first bilateral research project into space.

The spacecraft contained a box containing plants, bacteria and cancer cells. The "Simbox," built by the German company Astrium, was used to examine the effects of two-and-a-half weeks of zero gravity on the contents. If Peter Hintze, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the chancellor's space travel advisor, has his way, this project will have been only the beginning of broader Chinese-German cooperation in space.

The Chinese space travel offensive is "an enrichment" when it comes to the scientific exploration of the moon and the solar system, says Hintze. In fact, he would like to convince the Chinese to become involved with the Galileo navigation system and become a user of the International Space Station (ISS). "The Chinese have great ambitions and have such enormous means at their disposal that we can hardly keep up in areas such as manned space travel," says Hintze. The consequence, he adds, must be "to seek cooperation."

Aim For Chinese Spaceship to Dock at ISS

Reiter, one of ESA's directors, recently chose the European Satellite Control Center in the western German city of Darmstadt as the venue to announce concrete plans. The center is directly behind the city's main train station. From there, ESA controls a large number of satellites, and from the control room, there is a direct connection to the European Space Center in Kourou, French Guyana.

According to Reiter, China is very interested in cooperation. Three workshops will take place soon, including one on rendezvous in space. "Our goal is that, within the current decade, a Chinese spaceship will dock at the International Space Station or a European spaceship will dock at the Chinese space station," says Reiter. He has already told some of his employees to start learning Chinese.

Europe's interest in cooperation with China is partly a result of the financial crisis. While the Asians are forging ahead, the European space program is threatened with budget cuts. Italy has already said it will reduce its contribution to the ESA as part of the country's austerity program. The ESA still has about €12 billion ($15.7 billion) at its disposal, but the agency's budget could shrink considerably between 2013 and 2015. Some have already suggested that Germany, already the ESA's most important financial contributor, should step in for Italy, since it would be difficult to finance an independent space program with a reduced budget.

The ESA insists that the Europeans have no intention of turning away from the Americans. The cooperation with China is "complements rather than competes with" projects being undertaken with the United States, say officials at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). "We should not fall victim to the dangerous rhetoric of a new Cold War in space," says DLR Director Johann-Dietrich Wörner.

Challenging US Dominance in Space

Nevertheless, tensions are growing. America's doctrine demands a dominant role in space. European companies are blacklisted if they supply sensitive technologies to China. Sooner or later, Europe will probably have to decide between the United States and China.

Influential US politicians are already voicing their opposition to the idea of granting the Chinese access to the ISS. Whoever controls space controls the world of high-tech. Satellites are used to handle communication and navigation tasks, and nowadays no warship can function correctly without reconnaissance from space. In the US, where memories are still alive of the Sputnik shock of the late 1950s, the tone is becoming aggressive. Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said last week that if he is elected president, he will install a permanent US base on the moon. According to Gingrich, it is in the US interest to boost the country's capacities in space and to make sure that the Chinese and the Russians will never come close to matching them.

China also presents a challenge to Europe. There is a risk "that important technological advances will occur elsewhere, and not here," says Klaus-Peter Willsch, the aerospace spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. The carrier rocket industry is also threatened. The Europeans developed the "Ariane" rocket with substantial government support. China, for its part, could position itself as a low-cost supplier in the future, making the Ariane superfluous.

About 6,700 people work in the space industry in Germany, primarily for specialized companies in the area around Friedrichshafen and Bremen. "The price may be lower for a launch from China," says Dietmar Schrick, the managing director of the Federal Association of the German Aerospace Industry. But this isn't the only relevant factor, he adds, noting that "Europe's autonomous access to space" is also important.

CDU politician Willsch believes that more investment in the Ariane is needed. "It would be wrong to depend on China or Russia as a provider here," he says. One only has to "think of Russia's natural gas customers to see how dangerous one-sided dependence can be."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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